A filthy night I'll never forget

New Scientist, 4 April 2011

On Saturday night I spent an evening so brilliant and surreal, it's hard to know where to start recounting it. Should I begin with the fact that I was sitting down for dinner in a Victorian sewerage pumping station? Or the moment when near the end of the evening, I found myself agreeing to "sell my bum hole" to a complete stranger for just two Euros? OK, maybe I've gone too far forward there. Let's rewind.

Photo: Mike Massaro

Photo: Mike Massaro

The evening in question was dubbed Dirt Banquet and was a collaboration between Guerilla Science - best known for bringing science to music festivals - and food architects Bompas & Parr, who could give Willy Wonka a run for his money. It was all part of the Wellcome Trust's "Dirt" season. And it really was a filthy night.

The event took place at Crossness (sewage) Pumping Station east of London, which was opened in 1865 to help cope with the spreading popularity of flush toilets in the Victorian era - and the resulting cholera outbreaks and "great stink" of 1858. While sipping a cocktail in the renovated museum area, I learned that we have designer Joseph Bazelgette to thank for the sewerage system that removes the smell from the city and prevents the spread of disease.

After nibbles including bacterial jelly and Papua New Guinea mud cakes - unfortunately made of dirt, not chocolate - we were ushered into a grand candle-lit atrium to take our places for dinner. The menu at each place hinted at what lay ahead: Fermentation, Earth, Sex and, ominously, Brown Note.

Sadly, I was put off my starter of pickled vegetables and marinated tuna by guest speaker and anthropologist Val Curtis' thorough history of disgust. It turns out our disgust response is directly linked to things that caused disease in the past - from rats, to other people's saliva. "It's the voice of our ancestors telling us to avoid something," Curtis said, before regaling us with a list of all things revolting.

The main course, Earth, was sheer genius. The wait staff carried in half-metre-tall gardening pots with whole lettuces and greens sticking out of soil, and put them down among the tables. Clearly, the salad had arrived, but where was the rest? To find out we had to, em, dig deeper. Pushing our hands into the earth, we discovered warm, sealed jars full of meat and potatoes wrapped in foil. If the sight wasn't instantly mouth-watering, the delicious smells soon did the trick. We brushed the dirt onto the table and filled our plates.

Foraging for dinner proved a fantastic icebreaker, and soon the hall echoed with conversation. Some of the topics (between strangers, remember) included: why do children like to eat poo? Why do pregnant women want to eat disgusting things, like charcoal, and why - if we have evolved to be revolted by body fluids and saliva - do we have to embrace them in order to reproduce?

Photo: Mike Massaro

Photo: Mike Massaro

Yet we really got to know one another better when guest speaker Elizabeth Pisani, an epidemiologist and author of The Wisdom of Whores explored the issues of prostitution and disease by introducing a racy element to the evening. After gold-wrapped coins and trays of sweets resembling body parts were distributed, we were encouraged to bargain for the candy we craved most. As "mouths", "boobs" and other titillating treats were bought and sold across the table, I made the fateful decision to "sell my bum-hole" for a "2-Euro" chocolate coin, (much to my companions' delight).

After a sex-themed dessert course that I'll leave to your imagination, we were then told to brace ourselves for the group experiment element of the evening: experiencing the sound with "a theoretical infrasonic frequency that supposedly causes humans to lose control of their bowels". As the "brown note" grew louder and deeper something strange did indeed start to happen...

If you want to experience it all first-hand, Dirt Banquet will be recreated at this year's Secret Garden Party in July. Let's just say it will be one of the dirtiest - and most interesting - nights of your life.